Functionalist views on socialisation

The functionalist perspective is one of the key sets of views to learn in relation to socialisation

Functionalism is a structural theory in which the various parts of society work together as part of a complex system to promote overall stability and solidarity

Functionalism is also a consensus theory which sees stability in society based on a shared set of norms and values. Socialisation is a core component of this process

Socialisation is the process all individuals experience as they learn the culture of their society

We will experience primary socialisation from the family and secondary socialisation from education and other key institutions of society as we experience our whole life

Globalisation, online technologies and social media may be having a major impact on the way the socialisation process works

Socialisation and Culture

Socialisation is a life-long process. Individuals move through primary to secondary socialisation which continues throughout life as they adapt and respond to different circumstances (it is this process that Life Course analysis observes)

Socialisation is a necessary process in all societies

Culture involves the shared beliefs, values, norms, customs, language, history, symbols and knowledge that make up the way of life of a society or a distinct group within that society

Socialisation is also a subtle process (in most cultures). Individuals experience socialisation often without any awareness that the process is happening to them


Beliefs, widely accepted in society, that something is desirable and worthwhile

Some people may disagree, but as longs as the majority accept the belief as ‘normal’ it becomes recognised as a value of that society

Values may be defined by the specific culture of a country / nation

Democracies such as the UK see free speech, democracy, law & order, freedom of movement etc as key values of society


Norms are the behaviours we use to show the values of our society / group

Norms are the ways in which society puts its values into practice

Norms are the RULES of social behaviour accepted by most people

Norms govern all aspects of human behaviour and may also relate to very specific social situations such as queuing, manners and communication


Customs may reflect the values and norms of society but may also be based on much older and traditional forms of behaviour in social situations

A society may show its customs in the way it celebrates or commemorates certain life events i.e. weddings, birthdays and deaths

Customs may have their origins in older religious beliefs i.e. Christmas, Easter

Customs may reflect larger national memories i.e. Remembrance Sunday every November in the UK

Culture as the collective values, norms and customs of a society can therefore be seen as the whole way of life of that society. Some sociologists define this as the way of life that is NOT determined by biology or other natural features of what it is to be human. Culture – is all that is learned from others in society

Culture . . . everything in human society which is transmitted socially rather than biologically

G Marshall (1998)

Culture – not the same as society

Culture cannot exist without societies, societies could not exist without culture

Culture is the way an individual connects their sense of self (how we see ourselves, our subjective feelings) to the rest of society

Culture is therefore an essential part of what it ‘is’ to be human

Functionalists focus on the formal and informal institutions which co-exist to produce a society. These institutions are shaped, and function, through the culture of the society – by its norms, values and customs

The role of individuals in relation to the society is also influenced by culture – how we behave, what status we may have and what roles we should perform (and how we should perform them) – are all conditioned by the culture of the society

Socialisation and Identity

The process of socialisation gives individuals their culture and their identity

Socialisation, culture and identity are closely related

Primary socialisation, especially, gives children a sense of who they are, what social roles they may be called upon to play in life and to provide what some psychologists call ‘blueprints for life’ – a series of codes and behaviours that are grown into and experienced as life progresses

Socialisation and Social Control

Socialisation may also act as a tool of social control

Primary social control – parents over children (sanctions and rewards), teachers over children (sanctions and rewards)

Secondary social control – employers, partners, the state (sanctions and rewards)

Online social control / social media – sanctions and rewards through group approval/disapproval of posted behaviours and attitudes

Functionalist perspective on SOCIALISATION

In the form of CULTURE and IDENTITY

Socialisation – a benevolent way of learning culture and identity (and therefore the norms and values of society)

Value consensus – the key idea in functionalist views of socialisation. Through this agreement (consensus) people learn how to behave, what they may expect from others and what others may expect from them

If the process works – everyone wins. Society exists in harmony and stability. The process of integration is complete – we become completely ‘glued’ into our society

A useful way to think about the functionalist view on socialisation is to use Durkheim’s ‘organic analogy’. Society is made up of various institutions that act like the organs of the body: they all need to be functioning properly for the body to function.

Problems in one area of society (for example, high levels of crime or deviant behaviour) could be a symptom of major problems somewhere else in the society.

Socialisation is a central process to maintaining the healthy ‘body’ of society. Similar to discovering problems and seeking help with the body (bad teeth, poor eyesight etc) we should take a similar view of problems in society and seek to challenge and eradicate them. Otherwise the society may begin to fail, lose cohesion, consensus and begin to experience anomie – a state of normlessness.

Functionalism – Socialisation and Social Control

Functionalists use the concept of ‘social control’ to explain exactly how a society may use the process of socialisation to maintain order and ensure a value consensus in a stable society

Social control may be informal – this is the ‘softer’ and more subtle method of control through socialisation that may include gentle ‘nudges’ towards appropriate behaviour and through the delivery of specific messages and rules in education

These messages and nudges may be delivered by teachers, parents and other family members. Similar messages may be delivered by agents of the state – police, social workers – without necessarily leading to punishments and court appearances

Social control may also be formal – here, the agents of the state will move from simple warnings and guidance to more strict sanctions and punishments. The law will now be used to enforce the norms and values of the society on those people who are threatening social stability through their rejection of the value consensus

Functionalism – agents of socialisation and social control

Functionalists point to three key institutions in society that a central to the socialisation process. Two of these – family and education – remain important in western societies such as the UK. The third – religion – may now be less important in communities that were once recognised and defined in terms of Christian religions. Nevertheless, the deeper history and meaning of religion remains in many aspects of the socialisation process


Parson’s idea of the ‘personality factory’ where parents impose their norms and values onto children as a key part of the socialisation process

Children learn the culture and values of the society and accept the norms


Schools and teachers as part of the secondary process of socialisation

The ‘civic’ idea of a curriculum based on English, History, Religious Studies and Geography designed to promote the value consensus and maintain stability

Parson’s idea of education as the bridge between particularistic values and standards (younger children judged as specific and particular individuals) and universalistic values and standards (when society starts to judge you in relation to more general social rules)


Durkheim – observing society when it was still possible to see the influence of religion on society

High profile of churches, priests and vicars who often exerted their own form of ‘social control’ (Ireland between the late 19th century and early 21st century is a good example)

Religions often in control of ‘moral codes’ which framed attitudes to issues of right and wrong and behaviours within (and outside) personal relationships

Is the influence as strong today? We still ‘swear on the Bible / to God’ and religious influences remain at certain times of the year – Christmas, Easter – and state events. The funeral of Prince Phillip in 2021 is a good example of this.

Evaluating the Functionalist view of Socialisation


Sociobiological views – how much do we really develop through the process of socialisation anyway? What if there are a basic set of values that typify us as a species (universal values?). This is often framed in terms of the nature/nurture debate. Most sociologists accept that the range of human history and experience, coupled with changing behaviours and differing norms, values and cultures, suggest that the process of socialisation DOES happen

Interactionists point out that individuals have agency and free will – functionalist views of socialisation appear to portray humans as ‘cultural dopes’ (Garfinkel – 1984) who unthinkingly swallow the norms, values and culture handed to them at various points in the long process of socialisation.

Social action approaches see individuals with free will who make choices, take initiatives and may even rebel against the constraints of traditional norms and values. How else would a society as conservative and catholic as Ireland become one of the first countries in Europe to legalise same-sex marriage?

Social action theory also focusses on the role of socialisation in the forming of identity. Where functionalists see identity as a development and extension of the society, social action theory allows us much more control over how our identities are formed.

The work of Gary Fine is linked to the social action approach. He challenges the functionalist view of socialisation on the grounds that it ignores the agency/free will of children and overlooks the power of peer groups in the socialisation process.

Conflict theory is also highly critical of the functionalist approach to socialisation. Gouldner (1970s) sees conflict in the actual ‘battle’ of socialisation between parents and children

Marxists and Feminists are also critical of functionalist views on socialisation. Both agree that individuals are socialised into cultures, norms and values and that the process influences identity. They strongly disagree, however, with the functionalist view that this process is good for both society and the individual.

Feminists are particularly critical in that they feel functionalists overlook the influence of patriarchal power in the socialisation process. Feminists are particularly critical of some aspects of secondary socialisation – particularly education – where the process may be seen influencing the wider gender inequality in society (LINK to studies on gender differences in education)

Postmodernists – similar to interactionist social action theorists – point out that functionalists are guilty of over-simplifying a very complex process. Postmodernism rejects the idea that there can ever be one dominant set of norms and values into which we are all socialised. Society is far to complicated and diverse for this to be the case.

Norms and values exist, but we have much more choice and freedom in deciding exactly what they will be and how they may influence our own behaviour and values.